Thursday, November 09, 2006

What if it's Ugly?

A few weeks ago, a friend shared this video with me about people who intentionally create ugly MySpace pages. Warning: you may find it annoying. And that's part of the point.

The core of Ze Frank's argument is this:
“Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.”

I have a schizophrenic reaction to this argument. One side of me, the pro-2.0 let's all get involved side, cheers. The other side, the poet who's been to WAY too many bad open mics, shudders. Philosophically, I want everyone to feel empowered to raise their creative flag--but I only want to be in the audience for the good stuff.

Would you go to a museum of bad visitor-generated content? Would it be worth it if the process of developing that content brought those visitors to new levels of thinking and engagement? Museums are designed spaces, and I'd venture to answer no--that I wouldn't enjoy or return to a museum that featured random visitor-created crap--even if I appreciated the fact that it was enabling visitors to have a quality learning experience.

Museums will be most successful not if they throw open their doors without oversight, as MySpace has, but if they can evolve into structured venues for participation. I have more experience with this in the poetry world than the museum world. Some poetry venues foster communities of quality poets; others are hotbeds of mediocrity. What's the difference? The same newbies are showing up the first time, clutching a poem scribbled under the covers in hand. The difference is the quality of the venue, the community, and the host.

Imagine a museum as a "venue" rather than a content provider. Museum staff become the "hosts"--the people who BOTH set the rules and inspire participation. A good host leads by example and creates an environment where the community rewards growth and ignores/chastises derivative, derogatory work. A good venue is conducive to participation while setting a high standard.

Is this different from what museums are today? Absolutely. I'm curious to see what programs like Agents of Change at Ontario Science Centre are doing in this regard. But I think most museums are too afraid of the "ugly" that comes with total visitor participation to consider the possible beauty that could be generated in a well-thought-out venue.

4 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Recently got dragged to PS1 up here in NYC for some exhibition openings. When did vomit become artistic? Ooooh, OK -- it makes me question "what is Art? how do my preconceived ideas impede my appreciation of non-traditional genius? blah blah blah" Really, I was just nauseated. And then there was the recreated suicide exhibition... eyes roll. If NYC's leading artists are

I'm an aesthete, so take this FWIW, but:

Teleology derives from the Greek for perfection, not imperfection. Beauty is the goal.

By now, I've realized that I missed completely the point of your post. Short answer could be: the Internet itself is the Museum of the Weird, with a site's/video's popularity the judge of its worth. YouTube's greatest hits have beautiful moments, and there's always PostSecret. Don't blogs function as curators, bringing to the surface the gems of the deep?


Anonymous said...

I don't necessarily agree that the current museum experience isn't like the experience you described, Nina. Visitors (and for that matter, people) always "create content" no matter where they go. Give us both a painting, and we will both bring to it a different history/personal perspective, so that the meaning I make will be different. Because of our different points of view, the content we create from those points of view will be different.

For me, the more well-defined question is about how visitors *share the content they create with other visitors*. That's how the conversation continues beyond one person's experience; that's how knowledge gets shared.

Nina Simon said...


the difference is that bloggers, like PostSecret contributors, have no specific credentials beyond a willingness to look at a bunch of content and make judgments about what's interesting. Try and sell a curator on that kind of credential...

but it brings up the basic point that anyone-even a visitor-can be both a good creator and judge of non-expert content. I say non-expert because I do think there is value in the kind of art/content that requires more literacy to appreciate than the average person has. Some of what a museum does is display that kind of content to inspire us and help us learn that literacy. But when it comes to homegrown content, curators can probably step back and let the popular "cool meter" take over.

Anonymous said...

Visitors create the most important content there is in museums...their presence, their social interaction. It is both my impression and reasonably well documented in museum research (falk et al) that the social function of museums equals or trumps their curatorial/exhibition function. By interacting with each other and with the content, the museum has an identity that is different from any other place identified with learning.

A visit to the museum is significantly about people. When I was single and alone in the big city (pathos here), I frequented museums to people watch and with the normal hope of any 20 something, to find a partner. Sometimes I did, but thats another story.

Now that I have a family, the social aspect of museums is still very vivid. I watch all the people with children and how children interact with each other and the art work. Oh, and the partner thing...well, never mind.

I should say that I have spent many many hours in individual contemplation and interaction with an artwork, so I am not diminishing that value. But that is widely recognized as what museums do.

Somehow we screen out the crowds of people at a museum, or consider it a deficit of the place. I consider it the distinctive quality of museums.

So, we don't need people to create content for museums, they already create some of the most interesting learning opportunities we have.

Eric Siegel